Understanding the communication styles of immigrant engineers

Minh Reigen
6 min readAug 27, 2023

Immigrants made up almost one-fourth, or 23.1 percent, of all STEM workers in the United States in 2019, a significant increase from just 16.4 percent in 2000.
- American Immigration Council

Disclaimer: This is only based on my personal observations and my self experience as an immigrant who also works as a software engineer. Everyone is a different individual and each has their own communication style.

Embracing immigrant engineers into your team injects it with a unique blend of strengths that can significantly enhance the overall dynamics and problem-solving prowess. However, to truly harness the potential of these talented individuals, it’s crucial for both team members and managers to connect with their distinctive communication styles, as we will explore below. By delving into how immigrant engineers process information, convey ideas, and navigate cultural nuances, we can all foster a more inclusive and vibrant work environment.

This understanding not only fuels collaboration but also nurtures a genuine sense of belonging. It contributes to the collective success of your team and, by extension, your company. It’s more than just a “diversity” HR checkbox; it’s a genuine asset that can propel your team’s innovation and growth.

Communication styles of immigrant engineers: A Bit of A Mixed Bag

On one hand, they can be quite direct and blunt, especially when addressing problems. They don’t beat around the bush and may even mention names if they’re relevant to the issue at hand. While this approach is efficient, it might catch some off guard, particularly those less familiar with engineers from non-Western backgrounds. But that’s not all.

The Authoritarian Legacy: Communication Challenges for Immigrant Engineers

However, there’s an interesting twist. Among immigrant engineers who hail from authoritarian countries, there’s a notable pattern. Despite their occasional bluntness, they may not always communicate directly, not only when addressing upper-ranked engineers or managers but also when interacting with their co-workers, particularly if they believe their idea is in the minority within the group. In these situations, they seem to hesitate or hold back, possibly due to some underlying apprehension or uncertainty. This indirect approach can be unexpected and puzzling, considering their otherwise straightforward demeanor. One possible cause of this hesitation is rooted in their experiences in their old country, from which they fled. This phenomenon may be more pronounced among refugees or individuals who originated from countries with authoritarian governments. In their countries of origin, they were often trained and even brainwashed to be afraid of authority figures. Police, military personnel, or government officials were known to imprison, prosecute, or even torture individuals who did not comply with their orders, especially if someone dared to speak up against authority. This historical context may explain their reluctance to assert themselves openly, even in a professional setting.

Silent Struggles: How Limited Participation in Meetings Impacts Immigrant Engineers’ Careers

Another interesting observation, both in myself and fellow engineers hailing from non-Western countries, is that we sometimes take a bit more time to process information during meetings. It’s not necessarily a sign of shyness or a lack of intelligence; rather, it often boils down to the intricacies of language, wording, and verbal cues.

I’ve noticed that immigrant engineers who arrived in their younger years, attending high school or junior high here, tend to adapt more easily and participate actively in meetings with quicker responses. In some cases, personality traits like introversion or extroversion may also play a role in this dynamic. It’s like a linguistic puzzle we’re solving on the spot!

In my opinion, these traits can make it more challenging for immigrant engineers to ascend the career ladder within a team or company. In modern Western companies, particularly fast-growing startups, the act of vocalizing opinions and ideas often (though not always) leads to greater recognition and value within the team. This recognition, in turn, can result in higher compensation and promotions.

In my daily life, I no longer think in Vietnamese; English has become my primary mode of thought. However, during meetings, my responses are slower. This is because my brain’s “processor” is often overwhelmed with the finite resources struggling to simultaneously process language signals and formulate potential solutions or ideas after fully and correctly comprehending the language and different communication styles.

Misunderstanding colleagues’ requests or messages can be a common occurrence among immigrant engineers. I’ve observed this not only in myself but also in many of my immigrant colleagues. It tends to happen more frequently, especially when we’re under stress. As mentioned earlier, our mental “computers” can become overloaded, exacerbated by language barriers that haven’t yet been fully bridged as native speakers would experience. It’s like navigating a complex maze with occasional language roadblocks.

Challenges of Diverse Thinking in Homogeneous Teams

One scenario where immigrant team members might be unfairly perceived as timid or unwilling to contribute their ideas is in a team where every team member shares the same background and thinks in generally the same way. Such a team may indeed execute tasks swiftly due to this uniformity of thought. However, it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll consistently produce the best solutions for all problems, hence slowing down in the long run. This is because diversity of thought, the breadth of various problem-solving approaches, tends to be limited within a team where every member’s thought processes are very similar.

In such teams, the ideas of minority engineers can often rejected which possibly leads to a harmful cycle where these engineers become increasingly cautious about sharing their ideas. This caution can stem from past experiences of having their contributions dismissed or overlooked, ultimately stifling their ability to contribute effectively to the team’s goals. This further compounds the factors contributing to the “Silent Struggles” mentioned earlier, exacerbating the challenges they already face and making the climb up the professional ladder even more challenging.

Go-Hard-or-Go-Home Attitude

Understanding the communication style of immigrant engineers should be a valuable asset for any engineering manager or colleague. Immigrant engineers typically exhibit strong work ethics and efficiency, often displaying an unwavering determination to solve difficult problems. I’ve observed many immigrant engineers who approach challenging problems from multiple angles until they find a solution.

However, this tenacity can sometimes lead to challenges, particularly in complex engineering projects where it’s essential to break the task into smaller components and collaborate with other teams or engineers. It may appear as though they want to handle the entire project on their own, but it’s often because they struggle to ask for assistance.

As an immigrant from a post-war country myself, I can empathize with the origins of this attribute. Immigrants to first-world countries encounter a myriad of challenges, from basic needs to complex societal adjustments. Language barriers, cultural disparities in communication and problem-solving approaches, and financial limitations are just a few hurdles they face. Many arrive with minimal savings, and housing can be a formidable challenge, often necessitating shared living arrangements with other families in cramped spaces.

What’s crucial to understand is that unlike visitors from other countries or international students, these immigrants lack the option to return to their home country. Many of them have sold all they had before they left their home country, including their homes or possessions, leaving them with no place to live or means to restart their lives if they were to go back. In the case of individuals like other members of my family who fled Vietnam after the North Vietnamese government took over, going back to Vietnam could mean being captured and executed by the government.

Many of these engineers originate from countries where government support for citizens is limited or non-existent. Consequently, the concept of asking for help may be very foreign to them. Their only choice is to persevere, adapt, and move forward with the new life in their new country, which explains their indomitable mindset, reluctance in asking for assistance and strong work ethic.

In conclusion, while we haven’t delved deep into the intricacies of diversity hiring, it’s clear that welcoming immigrant engineers and their diverse problem-solving approaches can be an invaluable asset to any team. These individuals bring a unique blend of hard work, creativity, intelligence, and meticulousness to their work, all of which enhance the overall quality and longevity of a project. Despite differences in communication styles, they excel in delivering their ideas effectively. Moreover, their strong commitment to taking ownership and responsibility for their work is a testament to their remarkable work ethic and determination. Embracing and celebrating these qualities can foster innovation and success in any workplace, making it a win-win for both immigrant engineers and the teams they join.